Adam Kramer on College Football: OSU Could Contend for CFP, Despite the Scandal
Just how good can Ohio State be this season? Does Nick Saban have enough to contend? What games do you have to watch in Week 1 of the 2018 college football season? Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer has the answers to those questions and more in his weekly college football notebook, the Thursday Tailgate.
Here's what we know about Ohio State. Not about Urban Meyer, Zach Smith or the conclusion of an investigation that rocked the college football world. Not about text messages that may or may not have been deleted or things that should have been done differently. But about Ohio State's football team, which we haven't talked about much over the past few months.
This is a good team with great players.
There's a reason this isn't part of the national conversation around Ohio State right now, of course. What has transpired in Columbus—the allegations of domestic abuse against Smith and Meyer's handling of them—goes far beyond the field and is more significant than any football prognostication or result. Perhaps it will ultimately doom this team, too.
Perhaps 39-year-old interim head coach Ryan Day, a protege of Chip Kelly, won't be able to hold up during the first three weeks of the season. Or perhaps when Meyer returns from his suspension, his awkward and uncomfortable presence on the sideline (especially away from Columbus) will upend the team.
But if not, the Buckeyes need to be talked about from a football perspective, because there's a real possibility that they're far better than their No. 5 preseason ranking. They should contend for the Big Ten championship, and they could compete for the national championship as well.
For starters, it helps to have the player many would argue is the best in the nation. Defensive end Nick Bosa, the younger brother of Los Angeles Chargers Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa, is poised to have a monster season.
"There are a lot of similarities, and it goes beyond the physical stature," an NFL scout recently told Matt Hayes of Bleacher Report regarding the Bosa brothers. "But I'm convinced Nick will be the better of the two."
Bosa isn't the only piece of the Ohio State defense who could stand out. Specifically, there's also defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones, cornerback Kendall Sheffield and a boatload of depth across the D-line that should be the backbone of the defense.
Offensively, Dwayne Haskins might be a star in the making at quarterback. In short spells last year, he made plays—specifically against Michigan late in the season—that tease at his enormous ceiling. It would not be surprising to see Ohio State have a more consistent passing offense this season as a result.
With so many quality pieces around him—headlined by sophomore running back J.K. Dobbins, who ran for more than 1,400 yards as a freshman—this could be a unique group. It might not have much overall star power yet, but with essentially every notable wide receiver back, it isn't unreasonable to expect this unit to take a leap forward.
The team is not without questions or competition. Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State are all legitimate threats to win the Big Ten East, while Wisconsin, ranked one spot above Ohio State in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll, will present a serious threat to win the conference.
But the Buckeyes are primed for something. Whether that's another trip to the College Football Playoff or a 10-win season will be decided soon.
It will start Saturday, when Ohio State takes on Oregon State. And the Buckeyes, playing as more than a five-touchdown favorite at home (via Odds Shark), will likely look the part.
The beginning will feel odd, especially with the many sideline camera shots of the storied head coach's notable absence. The season itself will undoubtedly have a different feel and generate plenty of emotions depending on perspective.
But when focused strictly on football, the Buckeyes appear capable of winning every game they play this season.
If Nick Saban Can Pull This Off...
Let's start with the "this."
For Alabama, "this" is winning a national championship. Anything less is a disappointment. That is the bar Nick Saban has established, having won an absurd five national championships in nine seasons.
It is an unfair and unreasonable standard, and it's also why a team that has yet to name its starting quarterback is once again No. 1 in the AP Poll and the favorite to win the College Football Playoff.
"None of that has been decided yet," Saban said Monday regarding his starting quarterback, per Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com. "I wish we could talk about something else."
The prospect of Saban having to answer questions about his starter deep into the year could make for YouTube-worthy press conferences. But the uncertainty exacts a toll—see: Ohio State's 2016 season, when Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller tried to coexist.
In general, it feels like many are still floating after how last season ended, on Tua Tagovailoa's game-winning touchdown throw against Georgia. And perhaps that moment, the biggest moment imaginable, has blinded us all a bit.
Sure, Alabama's offense is loaded. At running back, Damien Harris leads one of the deepest groups Saban has ever had. When healthy, the offensive line should be excellent. The wide receivers are young, raw and extremely talented.
But this team is not without holes. The secondary is being completely rebuilt. The defensive line lost Da'Shawn Hand and Da'Ron Payne, both of whom were critical at the end of the year. Linebacker Terrell Lewis, who was expected to be a versatile and important piece, suffered a torn ACL back in July.
And let us not forget that Alabama had to replace both coordinators—again. While that has become routine for Saban at this point, it shouldn't be considered ordinary.
It's easy to say Alabama has the luxury of being Alabama, plugging in 5-star players when the others leave. Given the way Saban has recruited, there's some truth to that. But that doesn't make what some consider routine any less spectacular year over year.
That's why this current situation is so fascinating. For the first time in Tuscaloosa, a depth-chart discussion has overpowered everything else. Couple that with departures and youth and all of the things most programs regularly endure, and this feels like a much taller ask than is being advertised.
That is not to say Alabama can't and won't win the national championship again. Declaring that after all of these years and all we've seen would be stupid, stubborn or both.
But look at 2018 as a different kind of test for Saban. If he's capable of pulling this off—winning a sixth national title in the past decade—there's perhaps nothing he can't do.
Five Games to Watch This Weekend
There are a handful of splendid games this weekend, along with plenty that will feature third-stringers by the halfway point of the third quarter. Yes, the start of the college football season is upon us.
Here are the ones you must watch, in tweet-length form:
No. 6 Washington vs. No. 9 Auburn (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET): The Washington hype train has understandably picked up steam all offseason. Auburn, meanwhile, might be slightly underrated as a Top 10 team (if such a thing is possible). Winner makes a statement to the playoff committee out of the gate.
No. 14 Michigan at No. 12 Notre Dame (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET): One of these two fanbases will be irate afterward; that much is a guarantee. There are significant unknowns for both sides, so this game will be telling for both the Irish and the Wolverines. Oh, and look out for Donovan Peoples-Jones on Michigan. He's a star in the making.
No. 8 Miami vs. No. 25 LSU (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET): Yes, there is college football played on Sunday. And not just football, but important football. The Joe Burrow era begins at LSU, which could mean two things: The Tigers finally solved their quarterbacking woes, or Miami's Turnover Chain gets a Week 1 workout.
No. 19 Florida State vs. No. 20 Virginia Tech (Monday, 7:30 p.m. ET): Bless you, Labor Day ACC tussle. The return of FSU quarterback Deondre Francois, who suffered a season-ending injury during Week 1 last season, is unquestionably the story here. If Clemson will be pushed in the ACC, it might come from the winner of this game.
No. 1 Alabama vs. Louisville (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET): It might not end up with a compelling result, but you never know. Plus, we'll see whether Alabama will call on Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts or both to play quarterback. Plus, the post-Lamar Jackson era begins in a less-than-ideal spot. There's plenty of intrigue here, despite what the point spread says.
2018's Most Watchable Players
Nothing brings the internet together quite like a subjective ranking of college football teams or players, which feels appropriate to begin the season. It's worth noting that these are not the "best" players in college football or the most draftable, although many of the following players fit those criteria.
Express outrage accordingly. Much like the games themselves, it's tradition, after all.
10. Raekwon Davis (defensive end, Alabama): Of all the imposing players Alabama has trotted out on defense, Davis might be the most imposing of all. At 6'7" and 316 pounds, he is constructed unlike any defensive end we have seen, which speaks volumes.
9. Jonathan Taylor (running back, Wisconsin): Taylor averaged 6.6 yards per carry last season. Running behind one of the best—if not the best—offensive lines in the country, he could glide past 2,000 rushing yards this season. His weekly box scores should be extraordinary.
8. Kyler Murray (quarterback, Oklahoma): In June, OU's starting quarterback inked a contract with the Oakland Athletics that will pay him $5 million to play baseball. But he's still going to give football a go. That alone is enough to watch, but his potential at QB is sky-high.
7. Nick Bosa (defensive end, Ohio State): He'll likely be double-teamed on the majority of his snaps, but that shouldn't take away from the enjoyment one gets out of watching Joey Bosa's younger brother destroy offensive linemen all season long.
6. AJ Dillon (running back, Boston College): The best-kept secret in college football won't be a secret for much longer. At 240 pounds, Dillon is a tank. If you needed added incentive to watch more Boston College football this year, you have plenty in him alone.
5. Tua Tagovailoa (quarterback, Alabama): We talked about him all offseason, and he just won a national championship in walk-off fashion. We still don't know how good he can and will be, which is what makes Tagovailoa so intriguing.
4. Deebo Samuel (wide receiver, South Carolina): Before a broken fibula cut his 2017 season short, Samuel was on an absolute tear. He can score every time he touches the ball from anywhere on the field on offense or special teams. What a weapon.
3. Ed Oliver (defensive tackle, Houston): Like Bosa, Oliver will be targeted endlessly by offensive coordinators. And like Bosa, it likely won't matter. Enjoy one of the best defensive tackles we've seen in recent years before he's off to the NFL.
2. Bryce Love (running back, Stanford): Despite playing on a bum ankle late in the year, Love still ran for 2,118 yards and averaged more than eight yards per carry. He had 24 plays that went for 30 or more yards and 13 plays that went at least 50 yards. Enough said.
1. Khalil Tate (quarterback, Arizona): There is no more exciting moment in the sport right now than a Tate dropback. His style is chaotic and unpredictable, which makes his potential growth and evolution that much more exciting. He won't be perfect, but he will be thrilling to watch.
Gambling Locks of the Week
Of course there will be gambling in The Tailgate. Yes, we'll take a crack against the spread and some totals (over/unders) each week. Some of you can even do this legally now. Congrats on that.
We'll keep tabs on the previous week and the overall season, whether the results are wonderful, average or woefully inadequate.
Right now, we're 0-0. Let's get hot out of the gate. (We'll use the Westgate odds, courtesy of OddsShark.)
Michigan (Even) at Notre Dame: This might be uglier than expected, which would perfectly fine. The final score will be close, and Michigan will gut out a win.
Washington (+2) vs. Auburn: I mentioned earlier that I understood the Washington hype, so the following pick should come as no surprise. Another quality game, too.
Army (+12.5) at Duke: This could be fun, as Army seems poised to build off a fantastic 2017. I'll grab these points.
BYU (+11.5) at Arizona: I do love Khalil Tate, but I don't love that Arizona defense. BYU keeps this surprisingly close.
Boston College (-20) vs. UMass: Watch AJ Dillon run wild for a team that could be much better this year. Boston College by three touchdowns.